Although San Diego’s Ocean Beach is just a five-minute car ride from Sea World, it’s highly unlikely that any of the amusement park’s Shamu-ogling tourists would be caught dead here. A scrappy seaside community dotted with ma-and-pa surf shops and storefronts that promise CASH FOR SCRAP and BAIL BONDS, it’s the town that time and gentrification have passed by. And that’s fine by Speedo, aka John Reis, frontman for the San Diego punk sextet Rocket From the Crypt.
“Luckily the yuppies haven’t discovered this place yet,” says Reis, whose mutton chops and diamond-studded horse-shoe ring account for his passing resemblance to the late-’60s Elvis. “It’s very mellow here. A lot of people stay away from it ’cause there’s a lot of airplane noise, but I could care less about that.”
The overhead air traffic from the nearby San Diego airport is particularly clamorous on this typically balmy afternoon as Reis and Rocket bassist Petey X wolf down a lard-laden breakfast at Nati’s, one of two naugahyde-and-stained-glass Mexican joints in the area. Reis loves this town. He and Petey X, along with the other members of Rocket From the Crypt – N.D., Atom, Apollo 9 and J.C. 2000 (their superhero pseudonyms clearly the byproduct of warped childhoods spent reading Marvel comics) – grew up in or around Ocean Beach, and they boast about it with unabashed civic pride. It’s here that the band played its first gigs in 1989 and mobilized the rabid fan base that would become the white-hot hub of San Diego’s underground music scene.
While the media hype has dissipated since the days when San Diego was being touted as the next Seattle, Rocket From the Crypt’s army of fans continues to grow beyond the city’s sun-kissed borders. Scream, Dracula, Scream!, the band’s latest release, fuses the lock-step ensemble playing and piss-on-the-wall attitude of previous albums like Circa: Now! and Paint as a Fragrance to Reis’ expansive wall-of-noise production. In addition to the band’s ever-present horn section, underclass anthems such as “Young Livers,” “Born in ’69” and “Drop Out” feature strings, glocken-spiels, call-and-response choruses, the band’s usual battalion of screaming guitars and Reis’ insolent, asphyxiated vocals. Think Gene Vincent morphed with Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five and the Stooges. The result is the most ambitious punk album since the Ramones teamed up with Phil Spector to make End of the Century.
“That’s a sound that we’re really into,” Reis shouts over the din of a passing jet. “We tried to create something like that by using great old equipment, but we were very conscious about not trying to hype up the sound too much.” While searching for vintage analog gear with which to record the album, the band made a fortuitous discovery. “We were talking to this guy in L.A. about how much we loved Phil Spector, and he turned us on to this rich guy who bought all of Spector’s original equipment and re-created the old Gold Star studio right in his house,” says Reis. “I mean, it was unbelievable. The room is an exact replica, right down to the dimensions. We wound up recording a lot of the record there.”
The band’s primary sonic architect as well as the region’s busiest utility player (he also spearheads the avant-garage band Drive Like Jehu), Reis brings a surprisingly eclectic musical sensibility to a fold that manages to encompass Spector as well as Black Sabbath, Pere Ubu, Jeff Lynne and the Godfather of Soul. “We actually strive to achieve some of what James Brown accomplished in terms of presentation and the use of horns,” Reis says. “We just bathe in that stuff – Stax, too. Our music sort of rides the line between any number of James Brown songs and ‘Live and Let Die.'”
The offspring of an accordion-playing dad (his father plays on “Used,” from Scream, Dracula, Scream!), Reis founded Rocket From the Crypt after his first band, Pitchfork, crashed and burned. Reworking the moniker Rocket From the Tombs, the name of the band that later became Pere Ubu, Reis and Co. embarked on their self-appointed mission to shake up what they felt was a somnolent music scene. “It was getting really stagnant, and there was no creativity whatsoever,” says Reis. “We kinda wanted to bum people out, but it turned out that people actually liked us.”
Reis likens Rocket’s early gigs to folkie hootenannies. “We would create song books of the lyrics for the songs and make maracas and tambourines for people to play during our shows,” Reis says. By the time a revamped Rocket released their first full-length LP, Paint as a Fragrance, in 1991, the band was packing ’em in at key San Diego venues like the Casbah and Che Cafe. “That was a complete renaissance for music down here,” Reis says. “You could do anything you wanted to.”
Then came that darned rocket-ship tattoo epidemic. It all began when the band members emblazoned themselves with the design, but the tattoo quickly became de rigueur for hard-core fans as well. “We didn’t ask people to get them,” says Petey X, who has a lunar landscape tattoo covering every inch of his right arm. “I think it just symbolizes good times for people. That’s what it means to me.” The tattoo is not without its privileges: Anyone sporting it can get into any show for free, and the band recorded a one-sided single, “Tattoo,” exclusively for those who have marked their flesh in homage to the band.
It’s that kind of largess that has endeared the band to its fans. His plate of shredded-beef tacos a fond memory, Reis crunches on a piece of ice and sums up the band’s philosophy. “Rocket From the Crypt is about expressing ourselves and having a good time doing it,” he says. “If people aren’t enjoying it, then we might as well be practicing at home. We feed on the interaction with a crowd. I don’t think people are used to that anymore, now that punk shows have turned into arena shows. If fans are gonna pay money to see us, we wanna put on the best possible show, but we also want something in return.”
This story is from the February 22nd, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone.